As always, if you or any
members of the IMF team are captured or killed,
the Secretary will disavow any knowledge of your
An official of government secretly authorizes
an illegal action that, if publicly known, would meet
with condemnation. One might assume that, in his
or her mind, the ends justify the means. Success
accrues credit for the official and assures tolerance
of the means. Failure means blame for the
official and risks censure for the means.
Good luck, Jim!
-- From the opening of TV's Mission
Unless the official
Thus, in pursuit of an arguably
worthwhile purpose might a head-of-state secretly
contradict establish policies, transgress a treaty,
violate international law, carry out missions of
sabotage or terror -- even strategic assassination.
Somebody -- preferably a willing
subordinate -- must be prepared to take the
blame. Who? What will be the
story? Best to have all that worked out in
advance. For we have reason to believe there
is no such thing as permanent covertness. If,
as the saying goes, "nature abhors a vacuum,"
history abhors a secret.
The subject at hand is
"responsibility" -- more precisely "hierarchical
accountability." For the person in charge,
there can be no escaping it.
There are self-evident reasons for
running things this way. To do otherwise leads
to disorder, chaos -- not to mention mischief.
Without accountability, there can be no sure way to
detect the misguided policy. Without
accountability, nothing sets limits on the exercise of
authority, the use of power, the abuse of power.
Yet even the word "accountability" has become
pejorated by expressions that feature the word
"blame," which seems to bring shame more to the blamer
than the blamee.
- Asleep in his quarters, the
captain is nonetheless held accountable should the
ship at that time run aground.
- The bank president, even while
vacationing, must answer for what each teller
So, then, what rational argument can
be made for the doctrine of deniability, which
undeniably destroys accountability? Why even have
Neither word wins respect; both destroy
accountability, demolish responsibility. Ah yes,
but just as the word "lie" -- the verb -- gave way to
"dissemble" during the 1970s and "lie" -- the noun --
became "disinformation" in the 1980s, so perhaps
"deniability" came into being as a euphemism for a
venerable iniquity by some other name. If the
term has a harsher synonym, I would nominate the
expression "premeditated cover-up."
- Escape culpability by being
elsewhere and the word "alibi" would apply.
- Try exculpation through
ignorance (or forgetfulness) and the word "excuse"
has its use.
My guess is that the practice of
deniability arose first as a doctrine invented by a
loathsome totalitarian regime. The concept,
all dressed up in its official-sounding name, found
favor among this country's secret agents.
Whereas spying (passive mode) demands utmost
secrecy, covert plotting (active mode) calls for
plenty of that plus plausible deniability, or so it
seems. Spooky enough, had it remained in the
dark bowels of the "intelligence community," but as
we know, neither the word nor the doctrine stayed
To some benighted souls, deniability
may have a philosophical resemblance to loyalty:
something to be rendered to -- not
appropriated by -- a higher level
official. Not so much that the buck trickles
down, but that it is pocketed on the way up.
Cynics assert the proposition that
nations have no morals, only interests. The
words roll nicely off the tongue, but beware, people
of good will! Glibness can disguise a barren
thought. Be vigilant for wrong-headed
sentiments. That a country is compelled to
adopt the methods of its adversaries in order to
resist them is an insidious myth. Besides, if
"government by the people" is more than a slogan,
citizens must occasionally ask themselves, "What
kind of a country do we-the-people want here
Secrecy and covert activities may be
nasty realities -- but deniable covert
activities? I think the hell not.
a challenge: Hypothesize any covert activity for a
thought experiment. I can think of only three
categories to choose from: (1) paramilitary
operations, (2) psychological warfare, and (3)
political manipulation. Ugh! Tell you
the truth, I don't much care for any of them.
Anyway, take the secret mining of a harbor to stop
suspected weapons shipments, for example. Or
sponsoring the rebel invasion of a country with a
despised governmental ideology. You might
prefer to think up your own secret plot such as
fomenting a civil war, bombing a guerrilla sanctuary
in a neutral country, or plotting the assassination
of a rival.
Now, ask yourself, would you and most
of the people you know vote for it as a
referendum? Let's suppose the answer is "yes"
(we shall return to "no" later). Well, then,
your proposed covert activity is simply not a case
in point. No reason to hoke up deniability for
that scheme, whatever it is. Whoever
authorizes the plan has nothing to be ashamed of,
little to fear from public disclosure later on.
Caution is advised, though. Do
you really want your government engaging in
terrorist acts or adopting a concealed policy that
would approve the murder of a foreign
head-of-state? Think of the horrendous risks
associated with disclosure of your country's
involvement, denied or not. Even unrevealed,
the unintended consequences are bound to be
perilous. The cure may be worse than the
disease. One dead dictator won't necessarily
mean the end to oppression. The successor, if
not meaner by nature, may nevertheless have a
ready-made pretext for imposing more brutal
measures. This whole business gives me the
Accordingly, your thoughtful answer
might have to be "no" -- you and your friends would
not favor the covert activity under
consideration. The project is too dangerous,
and besides it is not the kind of thing you
want your fellow countrymen to be known for.
Before abandoning the proposed plan,
let us ask a second -- crucial -- question: Would
you judge this despicable covert activity to be
vital for the security of the country?
Not an expedient, not merely beneficial to national
interests -- vital. Let's take the
answer "no" first this time. If your answer is
"no," the essentiality of the covert activity in
question is in question. Whoever is in charge
must not approve the scheme, period.
Suppose, finally, that in your best
judgement the answer is "yes" -- the deed's gotta be
done. Bad faith it might be, but in good
faith, you can say there is no better way.
In my book, that means an official policy of war,
not peacetime high jinks. But even as an
alternative to war, deniability is wrong. Why
not, then, demand of our leaders as follows: Steel
yourself to the ineluctable revelations of history
and proceed in secret. Keep the chain of
authority intact. That's leadership.
Lament it when the time comes, but don't disavow
it! That's chickenship.
Excuse me for cursing the darkness;
however, deniability has to be one of the most wicked
ideas in the world. Alas, an evil doctrine
surely will not go away simply because one person
despises the word concocted to describe it.